I recently got an email asking me some great questions regarding the proper way for Catholics to study the Bible. I thought I’d share the questions and my answers publicly:
I was reading your blog on Modern Myths about Catholics and Bible Reading.
If Mass is not the place for Bible study and you find small groups to be ripe for abuse, how do you study scripture, by yourself? Is appreciation of scripture different from study? What do you mean when you say there are the boundaries of the Catholic faith that order your appreciation of scripture?
It is true that Mass should not be the place for “Bible study”, and that I have a low opinion of most “small group” Bible studies out there. So how should a Catholic study the Bible? And as the questioner so astutely asked, is appreciation of Scripture different from study?
The primary way that a Catholic should study – and appreciate – the Scriptures is regular attendance at Mass. But wait a minute, didn’t I say that Mass was not the proper place for Bible study? Yes, but my statements are not contradictory. Mass is not the place for Bible study in that it is not appropriate to use a homily to minutely explore the technical details of a passage – the setting it was written in, the original audience, the form of the text, etc. These things might be mentioned in passing, but they should not be the focus of the homily. Instead the Church asks the priest or deacon to use the homily to apply the Biblical passage to the life of the congregation.
The reading of Scripture at Mass is the primary usage of Scripture; in fact, I would say that it is why the Scriptural books were written in the first place. In the early Church, the debate over the canon (i.e. which writings were to be included in the Bible) was really a debate about which writings were to be read during Mass. Furthermore, many, if not most, of the New Testament writings were written to be originally read at Mass. When Paul wrote a letter to a community, he intended it to be read to the whole church of a particular area. And when would that be read? During the only time the local church gathered – at Mass. So Paul (and the other NT authors) wrote their writings with the intention that they be read at Mass – that is their primary usage. So to really understand the Scriptural books, we too need to hear them in Mass. This liturgical context keeps us in the “boundaries”, so to speak, of the original authors, and keeps us from going off into illicit interpretations and flights of fancy.
And hearing the Word of God proclaimed at Mass is the best way to grow in appreciation of it. The Sacred Scriptures were not written to be dissected in a classroom – they were written to be lived. And hearing them proclaimed in their original setting – the Mass – is the best way to appreciate that living dynamic of the Sacred Text.
Thus, the foundation for understanding the Bible is to hear it within the worshiping Body of Christ. This must be the starting point for any understanding – and appreciation – of the Sacred Text. But is this the only way that Catholics can study the Bible? No; as followers of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, we need to really dive into the inspired Word of God to better know and love Jesus. So we should take every opportunity outside of Mass to study the Scriptures as well.
What then are some practical ways for the Catholic to study Scripture? It is important, first of all, to remember that the Bible is a collection of ancient texts written in cultures that are widely divergent from our own. One cannot just pick up the Iliad and expect to understand it completely. Likewise, one cannot pick up the Bible and expect to comprehend the Sacred Text immediately. We need guides. The ideal situation would be to be involved in a Bible study led by a priest; i.e. someone who has been trained by the Church to know the Bible and its relationship to the Church. But of course this is not usually possible. Another possibility is to be in a small group that is led by someone who has formally studied the Bible is a faithfully Catholic academic environment, such as Franciscan University of Steubenville or Christendom College or other such school. Better yet, take classes yourself at one of these schools (many offer distance learning classes). But I would not recommend being in a small group Bible study led by someone with no formal training, or even worse, a small group with no leader at all. Too often such groups turn into discussions of “what do you think it means?” with no concrete study of the text.
If none of these possibilities exist, there are some good study guides available that can be used for individual study. Some I recommend highly are the Navarre Bible, the Ignatius Study Bible and the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. All of these understand the proper place for the Bible in the life of the Church and so can be useful for learning the Scriptures. (I would also be remiss not to mention that my own upcoming book – Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew - is intended to help Catholics to understand the person of Jesus as represented in the Gospel of Matthew, so it will hopefully be of some use as well).
As Catholics, we need to be immersed in the Scriptures as much as possible. Fortunately this can be done primarily just by going to Mass. But for those who are able, there are many other opportunities to appreciate and study the Sacred Text, and we should take advantage of them whenever we can.
St. Jerome, pray for us!